TROMPE L’OEIL at the The Other Palace
“an intriguing concept and one that will probably divide audiences, and lead to some interesting discussions”
It’s a tall order to expect an audience, while listening to a show’s musical number, to appreciate that certain lyrics are anagrams of the following line. Or that certain letters within those lyrics, if traced onto a sheet of paper, form a picture. The programme does devote a few pages of instructions for this lexical trickery, and often the words are projected high onto the back wall, but rather than being drawn into this distraction, the overall tendency is to just let it go over our heads. Nevertheless, at least we now know what an acrostic, or a lipogram is (google it).
The title suggests that all is not what it seems, and indeed there is an exaggerated surreal quality to Henry Parkman Biggs’ “Trompe L’oeil”. And like the artists it professes to emulate (Dali, Magritte, Escher…) there is more to see the longer you look. But rather than being given the freedom to make our own interpretations of the abstract mayhem, the message is very clear and one sided. We know where Biggs’ sympathies lie, even if we are never sure what story he is trying to tell.
There are many strands to the show – two that predominate. We have the rise and fall of Donald Trump, interwoven with what the poster tagline describes as ‘a queer love story’. The two are connected but in the same way that bedding plants and weeds might smother each other if left unattended. At the top of the show, Trump makes a deal with Vladimir Putin, after which Putin quite literally has Trump by the balls. Putin orchestrates Trump’s rise to power but only on the condition he can attach a remote-controlled clamp to his genitals which he tightens every time Trump strays away from his master plan. Both characters are larger than life and Sarah Louise Hughes’ Bond villain Putin (referred to as ‘The Imitator’) spars well with Emer Dineen’s cartoon buffoon Trump. Meanwhile two lovebirds Rip (a Republican in denial, played by Alex Wadham) and staunch Democrat Demi (Dominic Booth) eke out a ‘will-they-won’t-they’ scenario, complicated by the fact that Rip is implausibly unaware of Demi’s true gender.
“The ambition has to be admired, and the pace is frenetic, anarchic and chaotic”
Less a musical, more of a song cycle, the musical numbers intermix its influences, from cabaret to rap, to disposable pop. Delivered with high energy and soaring skill by the talented, fine-voiced ensemble they are catchy and instantly familiar. Although there is a tenuous thread connecting them, each number could be a stand-alone work in itself; although in a live setting we haven’t the time or inclination to analyse and pore over the intricacies. Like the overall concept, it is all just too clever for its own good and a touch self-indulgent.
The ambition has to be admired, and the pace is frenetic, anarchic and chaotic. The cast rise to the physical and vocal challenges with ease. It is larger than life, and totally bonkers. Yet despite the high entertainment value we are left with little to grip on to. The wider appeal is therefore constricted, which is a shame as there are some gems of observation, humour and satire to be found. But it is difficult to establish what this piece is trying to achieve. And it is a bit of a contradiction: it is bold, brash and funny but at the same time requires prior knowledge of the author’s writing technique. In some ways it appears progressive, yet it closes with the rather simplistic message that “we can disagree peacefully”.
The allusions to illusion in “Trompe L’oeil” are misleading – the show doesn’t quite match its title. But it is an intriguing concept and one that will probably divide audiences, and lead to some interesting discussions. Let’s hope they can ‘disagree peacefully’.
TROMPE L’OEIL at the The Other Palace
Reviewed on 29th September 2023
by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Danny Kaan
Previously reviewed at this venue: